Who's the Genius in Our Midst That We're Not Listening To?

We Can Be Too Defensive to Let Jobs-Like Visionary Thinkers Push the Boundaries in Our Own Shops

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Why is it that we often don't appreciate what we've got until we lose it? While many people lauded Steve Jobs' accomplishments as he was building Apple into the world's most valuable brand, his passing last month was an awakening for many more who suddenly realized what the world had lost. The flood of commentaries, blog posts, articles and a new biography celebrate Jobs' achievements and mourn the loss of a man who's being compared to Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. All three men were innovators. All were visionaries. All were, shall we say, geniuses.

While some say that we throw around the word "genius" too indiscriminately, I contend that we have more geniuses around us than we realize -- visionary people we work with every day who are constantly pushing boundaries and questioning conventional wisdom. We're just not listening to them.

Geniuses make themselves evident by having ideas bigger than we can conceive; it seems that they can see the future. Their thinking is highly disciplined, even though their behavior might not be. They appear fearless.

Why don't we listen?

First, geniuses can be annoying, as pragmatism is not their strong suit. They don't live in the same reality as the rest of us and aren't typically bound by the same time and space constrictions. Their pushing and stretching of our belief system can be emotionally draining. Instead of listening, we accuse them of not being aware of current reality. We tell them that they don't "get it."

Second, geniuses are hard to keep up with because -- while we don't like to admit it -- their vision is often well beyond our own capacity. They make us uncomfortable, because we just don't see the world the way they do. We respond by becoming defensive and frustrated. We dismiss them as being irrational, frivolous or self-indulgent.

Finally, geniuses get cranky -- sometimes even belligerent -- when we try to alter their ideas. They have little use for social niceties or making changes for political expediency. Geniuses will say "no" to many of your requests, believing that any impurities will simply dull an idea, forcing it toward mediocrity. To defend our position, we put them off saying, "Let's test it."

Working with visionary people can be trying. But my advice is to embrace all of it: the good, the bad and the uncomfortable. How?

Give them rope. Remember that imagination is the opposite of reality. Nothing great would happen if these people didn't push and stretch. Confining them to the limitations of today will reduce what they can produce tomorrow. (Just know that they're going to be late to meetings. Paying attention to the clock isn't a priority for them. Sigh, smile and move on.)

Demonstrate trust. Visionaries can see the future in ways we may not be ready for. This requires us to invest some intellectual and emotional capital to demonstrate faith in not only the idea, but the person as well -- even though we might not be convinced yet.

Accept "no" for an answer. We forget that one of the most important principles of marketing is discipline. One of Jobs' most critically strategic behaviors was how many times he said "no," knowing that the long term would be more productive as a result.

And please, please stop using artificial consumer testing. The most innovative ideas don't test well. Jobs refused to do it because he understood that people evaluate rationally, but buy emotionally. Malcolm Gladwell chronicled how badly the Aeron chair did in focus-group testing in his book, "Blink." "Seinfeld" famously bombed in testing. And, I'm certain that the Old Spice campaign wouldn't have seen the light of day had P&G insisted on testing it: "So, in this ad we'll have a deep-voiced half-man-half-horse character talking about how he smells …"

One of the major differences between Steve Jobs and the genius that you're not listening to is that you don't have to listen. Jobs ran Apple. Few geniuses have the authority to demand what Jobs did. But you can hear them out, nurture them and even empower them to demonstrate the vision they're capable of .

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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